Tennessee county purchasing director adapts to new COVID-19 reality
With more than 900,000 residents, Shelby County, Tenn., has made numerous changes to its operations as the U.S. deals with coronavirus, says Christin L Webb, the county’s Administrator of Purchasing. Her team has worked diligently to get needed personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic. “As we are able to secure key supplies, such as masks, hand sanitizer and gloves, we ensure each procurement team member has access to them in order to reduce potential contact with surfaces that could carry the virus,” Webb tells Co-op Solutions. She also serves as vice president of the Tennessee Association of Public Purchasing.
Webb says department staffers have been mindful of the need and utilization of PPE and supplies to ensure everyone receives them with equity. “If there became an issue of overutilization by a particular party, then an issuance process could be put in place,” she adds.
Yes, employee safety is important. Webb has worked to limit office staffing to increase social distancing among team members. Her team implemented a weekly rotating schedule to accommodate each of the critical functions of the department.
Webb says her department has transitioned many of its face-to-face functions to electronic actions. “For example, all public bid openings and pre-bid meetings are now done virtually.” The department, she adds, continues to look at opportunities to receive electronic bids/proposal submissions from suppliers. Budgetary constraints that the county currently faces, however, have forced the department to maintain manual bidding processes and procedures.
Digital document delivery is now available, Webb says. “To continue meeting the needs of our end users, processes that previously included submissions made by interdepartmental mail are now accepted electronically. Our requisitioning process previously included a hard copy mailed into the office and we created an electronic requisition in order to receive them electronically to minimize contact with documents.” Webb says her team is going to potentially continue the electronic requisitioning setup when the COVID-19 crisis is over. “The process has created a higher level of efficiency within the organization,” she says.
Webb believes that cooperative purchasing agreements can enable governments to achieve important efficiencies in the procurement process. “However, it is extremely important for the procurement agency to verify that the presented agreements are still in the best interest of the organization. Ensuring that the agreements follow the same guidelines required by the agency’s state and local policies is critical,” she cautions.
Savings are possible through cooperative deals, Webb explains. “When the agreements prove to be viable, the time that would have been required to solicit and evaluate the good/service identified on the cooperative purchasing agreement is reduced drastically and usually expedites the procurement process in a way that saves time and cost. There are no longer administrative requirements to develop solicitations and identify and advertise to potential vendors when opting to use a cooperative purchasing agreement.”
Webb believes colleges can be a good source of new talent for public procurement departments. “More intentional efforts at the college level can be helpful in recruiting potential procurement team members. Working with local colleges or other related educational programming can directly connect a procurement entity with interested talent and even help nurture the type of talent that the agency is looking for. I have seen this process work extremely well. The college talent can be used as an intern and assigned specific projects to help in necessary change management within a procurement organization.” On the subject of change management, Webb delivered a statewide procurement presentation at the Tennessee Association of Public Purchasing 2020 Spring Conference (virtual). The topic was “Change Management: Strategically Leveraging Resources to Achieve Success.”
And those college interns could wind up being positive additions to a procurement department’s permanent workforce, Webb predicts. “If position availability exists after the intern has completed their agreed-upon term, they can apply and be better prepared to be successful in being a viable candidate for the position. They would have proven to have direct knowledge of and experience in the organization’s procurement operations.”
Webb says the pandemic may lead to smaller budgets for public purchasers. “Before COVID-19, procurement department budgets, or at least those that I have worked with, have stayed about the same. Since COVID-19, competing priorities with the overall government budget have potentially created a need to become leaner with upcoming budgets. As resources in staffing and budget reduce, it will be important to use options like cooperative purchasing to minimize time and cost required in completing solicitations from scratch.”
Michael Keating is senior editor for American City & County and the GPN web site. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org